Modern Family tends to do best with episodes that limit the number of separate subplots, either by deliberate discipline or by creating storylines that split and merge. I’ve been critical of the show on frequent occasions for overstuffing—too many stories, too many characters, too many premises, too many gags to bring to too many punchlines. And at first, I thought “The Future Dunphys” was going to suffer from this common affliction. It managed to break up the cast into four separate groups—quite a feat, for a show with three families—and send each of them into separate tizzies.
But despite this unpromising structure, the episode succeeds in crafting big laughs in all of the storylines. Not all the way through, certainly, but where it counts most. Instead of showing discipline by focusing the storytelling and controlling the pace, “The Future Dunphy” exerts its discipline in the cause of finding the funniest way to set off the various explosions promised in its surfeit of setups.
The best of the episode’s premises is the one that provides the title. Claire goes to the hospital for an angiogram, and while she’s waiting to be wheeled off for the procedure, the older gentleman in the bed next door gets a visit from his three kids: a ditzy New Ager with four divorces to her credit, a humorless doctor living alone with stray cats, and a small-time criminal (“I got probation and time served!” he boasts), all three united in their disdain for their mother. Alarmed at this vision of their children’s prospects, Claire and Phil separately resolve to change their parenting styles—which means that they essentially switch places, with Claire telling the kids they can do what they want, and Phil insisting they have to change their ways.
After a virtuoso sequence with two phones, two parents, and three kids passing them around, the Dunphy children decide that something is wrong and head for the hospital. But on the way they evolve from their initial instinct (their mom is sicker than she’s let on) to the conclusion that, as usual, their folks are taking whatever personal issues they’re dealing with and projecting them outward to screw up their kids. “Be better at being adults!” Luke yells at Phil and Claire, who are celebrating the relief of negative test results by twisting the hospital bed into a rather uncomfortable-looking position.
Even though the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come storyline earns the most admiration for its degree of difficulty, the bigger laughs come in the simpler settings of the other two stories. Ed O’Neill has the capacity to become this show’s MVP at a moment’s notice, just by the way he approaches the confessional segments, and Jay’s change of heart about Manny’s desire to attend an elite prep school turns on one of those moments. I can’t get behind Manny’s posturing at the interview (young Rico Rodriguez can come off too mannered by half in these big set-pieces if there’s not enough give and take). But Jay, who succumbs to a decades-old desire to prove himself better than the privileged jerks whose coats he used to check at the country club, starts out wistful (“With their Brylcreems and their VO5s …” he reminisces about their perfect hair products) and winds up driven by anger (“You know what was a rare book in my school library? One that didn’t have genitals drawn all over it”).
Most surprising and delightful of all, the storyline where Mitch and Cam want Lily to spend time with Gloria as a female role model—not the most promising of situations—turns into an endless parade of running gags and crackerjack takes. Mitch and Cam have a sitdown with Lily when she announces to Gloria that she’s gay, and ascertain that she thinks she’s gay because her parents are gay, the way her friend is Italian because his parents are Italian. Her dads explain that her heritage isn’t gay, it’s Vietnamese because she was born in Vietnam—then sputter when she asks what her homeland is like. “Vietnam is a beautiful country, and it’s near China,” Cam declares, then gestures futilely to Mitch. In a matter of seconds the two are flailing—”They’re biking around! And they’re wearing hats!”—and Gloria declares that Lily needs to go to a Vietnamese restaurant to taste her culture.
That’s the setup for a third act pile-on, where Lily rebels against being made to eat strange food, Gloria reveals her anxiety that Manny is losing his heritage in his eagerness to embrace American prep schools and cheeseburgers, and Cam and Mitch make a series of outrageous statements that get them in deeper and deeper with the demographics who happen to be passing their table at those precise moments. “You’re not gay, you’re just confused!” Mitch assures Lily as two horrified lesbians cross behind her. “They’re just going to grow up and become boring old white people,” Cam says as two old white guys enter the frame; “Most of our friends are white!” Mitch assures the offended oldsters just as a black couple draws within earshot. And finally, apropos of Gloria’s plan to take her kids to Colombia for a visit: “I think we would all be better off if people just went back where they came from,” drawing stares from the entire restaurant.
Modern Family can still do better, when it takes that gift for classic farce (as evidenced in that restaurant scene) and marries it to an overarching structure that lets all the storylines build on each other. But credit where credit is due: With enough laughs and invention in enough scenes, even an overstuffed and overstretched episode design can be the setting for a solid win.
- God bless Ed O’Neill. I could watch him deliver a whole script full of strangely specific asides like the one about how much he suffered while checking those country club coats: “And that was before your high-tech fabrics; they weighed a ton!”
- The awesome transformation of Luke into a so-crazy-it-just-might-work mad scientist continues in the episode’s bookends. In the opening, he’s working on a toaster that ejects toast into a bowl of butter; in the tag, he and Phil and trying to perfect a pancake batter infused with popcorn kernels to make it self-flipping (“You mean popcake?” “I was thinking flipjack”).
- Norman in the next hospital bed is a hippie with out-of-control kids, according to Claire. “A wise, insightful old hippie! A Jeff Bridges hippie!” Phil protests.
- “Knock knock,” the doctor announces himself at the door. “Don’t bother, she’s not in the mood for jokes,” Phil tells him.
- “Coffebot is a non-starter.”